My friend posted an alarmed message to a listserv about a new data service he read about in the Wall Street Journal this week. “We now have NO privacy with Rapleaf,” he said. I was, to say the least, intrigued. I immediately read the WSJ article and went to Rapleaf.com to see what the fuss was about.
Rapleaf is a data aggregation company. Aggregators collect data from many different sources and make them searchable. Examples of other aggregators are Lexis Nexis, Experian, and Google. What makes Rapleaf interesting is that their sources include social media like Facebook and LinkedIn. They collect information from public social media accounts to develop an understanding of consumer interests. This is an extension of a form of market research that has gone on for decades. Experian, for instance, collects information from hundreds of sources about consumer behavior and characteristics. A company that has a product that they think is of interest to well-educated women between the ages of 25 and 35 can go to Experian to find a group of likely customers who meet the criteria. This helps the company be more targeted with its marketing efforts. And you could argue that it helps the consumers as well. Those who are most likely to be interested in the product learn about it. Those who are unlikely to be interested in it are not bothered by unwanted junk mail – at least from that company. We get plenty of junk mail as it is. Any efforts to reduce the volume – or at least make the junk mail we get more interesting – are welcome!
Clearly, social media contain a great deal of information that might be helpful to marketers about interests and attitudes. Rapleaf has found a way to collect and organize this information. Now if you’re thinking this is the stalkers best friend, you’re wrong for several reasons.
First, all of the personal information that is returned by Rapleaf is already public on the individual’s social media accounts. You can try it out yourself. Go to Rapleaf.com and create an account. You will get an instant report on what they have on you. My Rapleaf profile is underwhelming. They put me in the proper age category and categorized some of my interests, including music, nonprofits, news and current events, and social networking. These are accurate as far as they go, but they are not secrets. You can find out the same information and more by reading my LinkedIn profile and my Facebook page. Like many social media users, I keep my privacy settings fairly loose. I respect those who prefer to only share information with those they know, but my attitude is – what’s the point of social media if you don’t want to be social?
Second, there is no search form at Rapleaf that allows you to search for specific individuals. Rapleaf is a for-profit company and they want to sell this information to paying customers. If you have a corporate account, you can build a search tool (they provide the API code). But if you have a corporate account, you’re probably not interested in searching for information on a particular person. As I said above, there are better and more direct ways to do that. Instead, you want to get a block of potential customers to whom you can direct your message. If you do not have a corporate account, you can only view your own record at Rapleaf.com.
Third, if you want to opt-out of Rapleaf’s database, they give you a way to do it right on their website.
Sadly, the Wall Street Journal did a disservice to Rapleaf and its customers by taking the tone of an exposé in Monday’s article. If your only exposure to Rapleaf is from that article, you would be alarmed. The WSJ paints the picture of a company that is “tracking” social media users. That’s a bit sensationalized. It is more accurate to think of Rapleaf’s service as a social media append – or an interest append, if you will. Nonprofits and for-profits use similar appends all the time – email appends and address updates for example. These help organizations communicate more effectively and efficiently with their constituencies. By knowing something about your constituents’ interests your marketing team can craft a message that is most appealing to specific segments, and, where appropriate exclude segments where their interests do not line up with your mission.